By Amanda Causey Baity
We’re all captivated by the wonder of our galaxy—its faraway planets, many moons and falling stars. On clear summer nights, this vast expanse seems to beckon us to journey into deep space. Though you can’t climb into the family rocket and take a spin—not yet, anyway—you can take your little ones on a tour to infinity and beyond from the comfort of your own backyard.
To prepare for liftoff, it helps to know where you’re going and what you might see. After all, your kids will have lots of questions. You may have a star chart at home, but if not, I have created one for you to download and print here.
You can also visit Sky and Telescope magazine’s website and click on “This Week’s Sky at a Glance” to learn more about upcoming celestial events. Or you can download the Google Sky Map app to help locate celestial objects from your location.
You will also need an open horizon or view of the sky in an area that has low light pollution. A telescope is nice for viewing deep space objects and details on planets in our galaxy, but you can see them with a good pair of binoculars as well. Visit http://astronomyindc.org/places.shtml to see a list of local observatories, astronomy clubs, planetariums and space camps.
Start with the Moon
The moon is the largest and brightest object in the night sky. That makes it a good place to start family observations. Use a landmark in your yard to keep track of where and when the moon rises each evening. You do not need a telescope to see details on the moon. A set of binoculars will do nicely.
Watch how the moon crosses the sky each night. As time passes, your kids will see all of its phases. Explain that it doesn’t make its own light. As the moon circles Earth, the sun lights different parts of the lunar body. That’s why the moon’s shape seems to change. When the moon is full, look at its pattern of light and dark patches. Explain to your kids that the dark areas
are large, flat lava plains. The light areas are hilly and full of craters. The largest full moon this year will be on the night of Aug. 10.
Reach for the Stars
The best time to see stars is on a moonless night. As soon as your family gets settled, ask everyone to close their eyes and count to 100. This will help your eyes adjust to the darkness. When you open them again, stars will seem to fill every corner of the sky. Ask your children how many stars they think there are. The universe contains billions of them, but we can only see about 2,000.
Pick a Planet
The first “star” you see at night might be a planet. How can you tell? Stars twinkle, but planets give off a steady light. Like the moon, a planet doesn’t make its own light. It reflects the light of the nearest star, the sun. Planets are smaller than stars, but they look big and bright to us because they are much closer to Earth.
Most planets will be hard to spot this summer, but Jupiter and its four largest moons, the Galilean moons, will be in the ideal position for viewing in July and August. You’ll need binoculars or a telescope, so be sure your children have practiced using them before the big night.
Meet Some Meteors
A shooting star is really a meteor—a bright streak of light that we see when a small rocky body from space enters Earth’s atmosphere. You can see them any night of the year, but there are two excellent opportunities this summer:
- Look for the Delta Aquarids meteor shower from July 21 to Aug. 23. The flashes of light will radiate from the constellation Aquarius. The best viewing will be July 27-28 after midnight, when the moon has set.
- The Perseids meteor shower will produce up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak Aug. 11-12. Look toward the constellation Perseus in the northeast after midnight. The Perseids are particles released from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle during its numerous returns to the inner solar system.
Spot a Spacecraft
Shooting stars last just a few seconds. If you see a steady light cruise across the sky, it’s probably a spacecraft—a satellite, the space shuttle or the International Space Station (ISS)—orbiting Earth.
It will be easy to spot the ISS all summer long. To find out where and when to look, visit www.spaceflight.nasa.gov/ realdata/sightings. Click on “Go to Country” in the “Sighting Opportunities” box, and then select your state and town. Once you’ve spotted the spacecraft, watch your child’s interest in astronomy shoot to the moon.
Amanda Causey Baity, Prince William Living’s marketing director and photo editor, has a Bachelor of Science degree in astro-biology and is a lifelong astronomy enthusiast. She can be reached at